It’s one of the great injustices of the modern world. While the likes of Waterloo Road and Canada’s Next Top Model clog up the airwaves, far superior offerings such as Friday Night Lights, recently rescued by Sky Atlantic, are squeezed out. Cult classics are rarely repeated. Underground gems slip under the radar. They’re consigned to the hidden corners of DVD racks, Sky+ planners or the internet, leaving some of the finest TV shows unseen. These stay-in-the-warm-on-the-sofa months are ideal for correcting this error, starting with these…
‘The Australian Sopranos’ dramatises the Melbourne gangland wars, which claimed 30 lives in the Nineties. Broadcast in 2008, it’s a credible chronicle, based on the book Leadbelly: Inside Australia’s Underworld by two reporters from local broadsheet The Age. The equivalent of Tony’s wiseguys are The Carlton Crew: a coked-up, power-crazed crime syndicate of killers, bank robbers, loan sharks and drug dealers. The characters are compellingly grotesque and the bursts of violence viscerally thrilling.
Remember Eighties action romp The Equalizer? Well, Callan is the cult British spy series that is responsible for first establishing Edward Woodward’s hard-man reputation. This late-Sixties/early-Seventies ITV gem starred Woodward as antihero David Callan, a reluctant hitman for a shady government counter-intelligence department called ‘The Section’. He prowls Cold War-era London, grappling with his morals when faced with killing in cold blood, usually without knowing what his targets have done to deserve such a fate. Mean, moody and almost like the Bourne novels, if they had been written by John Le Carré. It’s a compelling neglected classic — right down to the sinister opening credits of a single bare lightbulb swinging to and fro in an interrogation room.
Parks and Recreation
This smart ensemble satire is one of the most critically acclaimed comedies currently on US network TV — and it’s succeeding in getting stronger with each series. It lovingly portrays a group of loser local government workers in Indiana and their useless efforts to build a town playground in a bid to improve their city, overseen by idealistic civil servant Leslie Knope (played by ex-SNL star Amy Poehler). Written by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, responsible for comedy hit The Office: An American Workplace, it is also a mockumentary that is by turns hysterical and heart-warming.
A VERY PECULIAR PRACTICE
Andrew Davies is now one of our top TV writers, but he scored his first success in the mid-Eighties with this cult comedy-drama based on his own experiences as a lecturer. It’s set on the campus of Lowlands University, where angsty academics desperately cling to their cushy jobs in the face of Thatcher’s cuts. Dippy doctor Stephen Daker (Peter Davison) takes over the student health clinic and soon discovers a hotbed of sex, drink, drugs and corruption. Darkly surreal and searingly satirical, its 15 episodes also feature early screen roles for Kathy Burke and Hugh Grant.
Man to Man With Dean Learner
This spin-off from the equally-underrated Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace starred Richard Ayoade as the titular chatshow host — a dapper porn publisher-cum-PR man. The six episodes, which snuck out on late-night Channel 4 five years ago, see the sleazy Learner interview spoof characters, all played by co-writer Matthew Holness, including horror author Marenghi, folk singer Merriman Weir and racing driver Steve ‘The Accelerator’ Pising, complete with plugs for Dean’s autobiography I Have A Dean.
As his hit Buffy The Vampire Slayer finished, creator Joss Whedon hatched this ‘space western’ about the crew of a renegade transport ship in the year 2517. Despite the show being cancelled before the end of its 2002 debut run, it is filled with witty dialogue and compelling characters.
Super-smart US sitcom that mixes up the traditional format. Disgraced lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is forced to attend a community college where he’s thrown into a group of misfits — including Chevy Chase (below) and Ken Jeong.
Freaks and Geeks
Hollywood’s comedy king Judd Apatow made his name with this 1999 comedy-drama set in a Detroit high school during the Eighties era of soft rock, bad denim and Ataris. The focus flits between the stoned slacker freaks and the Dungeons & Dragons-playing geeks, often feeling more like a cool indie flick than a TV show. At the first production meeting, Apatow made the crew write down their most embarrassing teen experience. They were all used in the show. The fresh-faced cast includes long-time Apatow collaborators James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen. It was cancelled after 18 episodes, but has developed a cult following.
This six-part futuristic horror series, which was shown on Channel 4 in 1998, follows a secret government vampire-hunting squad who use hi-tech weaponry and never refer to their targets as the v-word, but “Code Fives” or “leeches”. Created by This Life and Doctor Who alumnus Joe Ahearne, it boasted a cast of This Life’s Jack Davenport, True Blood’s Stephen Moyer and The Wire’s Idris Elba. A pilot for a potential US remake was also made, in which Elba would have reprised his role, but the series was never commissioned. Stylish, dark and witty, it still stands up 14 years after transmission.